Students were asked to name a pot, a pan, utensils, some ingredients, too — all in Spanish.

“Celia, where is the tomato?” asked instructor Juan Rosado, while the chef puckered his lips in the direction of the produce on a nearby tray. He was trying to give Celia a hint.

The lesson was part of a cooking class at the Free Library of Philadelphia this month for the especially challenging dual-purpose work of gaining communication and culinary skills, this time to learn Spanish while making a pasta dish under the tutelage of chef José Luis Reynoso and Ana Roque. The Edible Alphabet class listened to ’80s salsa music and divided into groups to boil water, cut vegetables, and work on plating.

>>Haga click aquí para leer este artículo en español.

For teachers Roque and Reynoso, the class was just one stop on a long journey to create Alta Cocina — what started on a whim as a YouTube channel and is now on its way to becoming a food-truck business. But in a city with about 11,000 Latino small businesses out of about 104,000 total, the path to becoming an entrepreneur, navigating trusted sources of information, and finding people to explain in a language they better understand, can be rocky and frustrating.

“We are risking everything we have — our reputation, economic stability to be where we think we need to be: sharing our talent and passion for cooking with the people. And we are going to get there. God has it written,” said Reynoso, 46.

It’s what the couple has always done, even when they first met in Philadelphia — Roque by way of the Dominican Republic and New York, eventually running her own beauty salon; and Reynoso, from the Dominican Republic, then Madrid, working in cities across Europe and the Caribbean as a chef for the hotel chain Catalonia. The two met after Roque’s brother introduced them in early 2013; they married in September that same year.

“We bonded in the blink of an eye,” Roque, 51, said.

Chef José Luis Reynoso and his wife, Ana Roque, pose while presenting his roast chicken with mashed yuca dish at his home in Olney, North Philadelphia.
MIGUEL MARTINEZ / Staff Photographer
Chef José Luis Reynoso and his wife, Ana Roque, pose while presenting his roast chicken with mashed yuca dish at his home in Olney, North Philadelphia.

Soon they learned how well they complemented each other. While Roque is outspoken, Reynoso is happier to focus on using his hands.

So when Reynoso couldn’t find a restaurant in which he could expand his talents after having worked at four, and Roque was diagnosed with lupus and tendinitis in her left arm due to years of straightening hair, the couple decided to take the risk and start their own business.

“People will never feel your passion when you’re behind the limitations of your bosses,” Reynoso said.

The goal: open a Dominican-European fusion food truck — seafood paella, mangú with salami and boiled eggs, octopus salad, fish ceviche, pork ears and tostones, stuffed eggplant with ham and cheese. These nonexotic plates presented elegantly would fill in the gaps, they thought, in Philly’s more mainstream Latino food scene.

But they had no budget, and no clear idea of where to start.

They took what turned out to be the first step last year, by creating a YouTube channel called Alta Cocina por el Chef José Luis. With the support of a videographer nephew, Reynoso and Roque started to publicize his cooking.

The two-and-a-half minute segments run weekly, with Reynoso preparing an “easy and simple” meal for viewers to follow at home. In addition to the channel, which has about 500 subscribers, their Instagram account has led to opportunities like the Free Library gig. An entrepreneurial marketing class at Temple University’s Fox School of Business also has chosen them as a case study to bolster their business plan and offer audience growth strategies on social media. In the meantime, they’ve had to hire two people to manage those social accounts.

Tanya Santiago, 47, follows Alta Cocina on Instagram. She said she admires their work, a “brilliant way to present food with photo and video,” something people from all over the world love.

Already they have invested $15,000 in the project and taken out $4,000 in personal loans. Roque said that it has been difficult to find guidance, to develop a business plan, to know whom to trust, or how not to be misled.

According to Jimmy Durán, vice president and development officer for small business lending at Wilmington, Del.,-based bank The Bancorp, this is common among Latino immigrants who want to start a businesses here.

“There are cultural factors that affect these entrepreneurs — like the perception they may have of what taking out a loan means, or their understanding of what taxpayers’ money is used for, or what the requirements are for creating a business project,” said Durán, the former programs director for the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.

Most Latino entrepreneurs in Philadelphia tend to lack a credit history, he said, which affects their ability to get loans. Also, business practices in Latin American and Caribbean countries tend to emphasize the connections you have; to establish business plans before you know you’ll have the green light to proceed is like putting the cart before the horse.

“Honestly, we need to find ways to develop a welcome kit, a 411 sources guide, that we can support these people in becoming a workforce and economic power in the city,” Durán said.

Colombian videographer Alexander López, 38, films Chef José Luis Reynoso in his North Philadelphia home while he prepares a dish of yuca puree with chicken for his weekly YouTube program.
MIGUEL MARTINEZ / Staff Photographer
Colombian videographer Alexander López, 38, films Chef José Luis Reynoso in his North Philadelphia home while he prepares a dish of yuca puree with chicken for his weekly YouTube program.

Roque and Reynoso have registered as an LLC, designed a logo, taken out two loans to start building credit history, and have begun the licensing process for the food truck. But they also recently had to resubmit paperwork to a bank, and still haven’t received approval from the city to park their food truck.

Despite the challenges, the couple works as a team. Roque keeps looking for opportunities to showcase the brand. She is taking English classes after earning a certificate for Entrepreneur Latina Women with a local service organization called Finanta. Reynoso finds time during the week to study media literacy after working 12-hour shifts at a North Philly restaurant. He doesn’t make any decisions without his wife’s approval.

Eventually, they hope to open restaurants, publish a book of recipes, and brand and bottle an original sauce Reynoso makes for meat and fish. And they continue to produce their YouTube shows.

After a three-hour filming session at the couple’s home kitchen, videographer Alexander López, 38, uploaded a photo of the chef’s latest dish to his Instagram story. Soon, neighbors and friends would start filtering into their home (everyone knows which nights filming takes place) to eat a dozen chicken thighs with mashed yuca.

Among the visitors was Noeli Méndez, dining there for the first time. She was surprised to learn she wasn’t eating mashed potatoes.

“I had never tasted yuca like this before,” Méndez, 27, said. “It has such a rich texture.”

Chicken with Mashed Yuca and Orange-Ginger Sauce

Yuca was one of the main products the Taínos natives harvested in the Caribbean before the era of colonization, and along with yams, plantains, and sweet potatoes, it is still one of the most important food sources there and in other tropical areas.

In 2017, the Dominican Republic produced 380,000 tons of yuca. Its fibrous texture and earthy flavor make it an ideal complement for sweet and savory dishes that include thin, delicate sauces. It’s served fried, boiled, mashed, in stews and soups.

“Behind each yuca dish there is a giggle or laughter, because it surprises one again and again,” Chef José Luis Reynoso, 46, said about the reaction he gets from guests when he serves yuca. Here, the starchy mash soaks up the fruity orange-ginger sauce for roasted chicken thighs. Serves 5.

1 pound bone-in chicken thighs

1 cup lemon juice

3 large garlic cloves, peeled, minced, and mashed to a paste

Salt and black pepper, to taste

1½ ounce ginger, peeled, minced, and mashed to a paste, divided

1 pound yuca, peeled and quartered

½ stick butter

1 tablespoon olive oil

1½ cup orange juice, divided

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

Heat the oven to 400°F. In a bowl, toss the chicken with the lemon juice. Remove the chicken and place in a roasting pan, then season on both sides with mashed garlic, salt, and pepper, using your hands to rub in the seasoning. Discard the lemon juice.

Spread an even layer of mashed ginger on each chicken thigh. Roast for 45 minutes.

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the yuca and a teaspoon salt. Cook until the yuca is soft when pierced with a fork. Remove it from heat and drain.

In a large bowl, combine the yuca, butter, and oil and mash with a fork or a potato masher until smooth and creamy.

When the chicken has roasted for 45 minutes, remove from the oven, then pour ½ cup of the orange juice over the chicken. Return to the oven for 10 minutes.

Measure out 2 tablespoons of the chicken’s cooking liquid. In a skillet over low heat, combine the cooking liquid, the remaining cup of orange juice, and remaining ½ ounce mashed ginger; cook for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Whisk the flour into the liquid and cook, whisking continuously, until the sauce reaches your desired consistency. Serve the sauce with the chicken and the yuca, and the remaining cooking liquid, if desired.

— José Luis Reynoso